On August 21, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Richards v. Ernst & Young, LLP, Case No. 11-17530, became the third federal Circuit – together with the Second and Eighth – to reject the National Labor Relations Board's (NLRB's) controversial D.R. Horton decision, which held that an arbitration agreement requiring an employee to waive his or her right to bring class claims violated the National Labor Relations Act. The Richards Court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that Ernst &Young had waived the right to arbitrate its claims by waiting to seek arbitration until after discovery and several rulings by the court. Therefore, the Court held that the arbitration agreement between Richards and Ernst &Young was enforceable, even though it precluded class arbitration.
Federal Courts of Appeal Reject NLRB's D.R. Horton Decision
Decided in January 2012, the NLRB's D.R. Horton ruling attempted to thwart efforts by employers to reduce their risk of class action claims through the use of arbitration agreements containing a class/collective action waiver. In re D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (Jan. 3, 2012). Despite D.R. Horton, employers have continued to argue for the enforceability of such agreements, and like Ernst & Young, have often prevailed in court. In fact, the overwhelming majority of courts that have considered the enforceability of mandatory arbitration agreements with class waivers subsequent to the D.R. Horton decision have rejected the NLRB's reasoning and refused to follow its holding.
In addition to numerous district courts so ruling, the Ninth Circuit becomes the third federal appellate court to reject D.R. Horton. In January 2013, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a class arbitration waiver in the employer's mandatory arbitration agreement did not preclude arbitration of the employee's claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050 (8th Cir. 2013). The Eighth Circuit found that without a congressional mandate under the FLSA indicating that a right to engage in class actions overrides the mandate of the Federal Arbitration Act in favor of arbitration, the NLRB's rationale in D.R. Horton must be rejected.
Earlier this month, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld an arbitration agreement containing a class action waiver in another FLSA case brought against Ernst & Young in New York. Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, No. 12-304-cv, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 16513 (2d Cir. Aug. 9, 2013). Despite the employee's argument that the class action waiver removed the financial incentive for her to pursue a claim under the FLSA, the Court ruled that the arbitration agreement must be enforced. Like the Eighth Circuit, the Second Circuit declined to follow the D.R. Horton decision.
NLRB ALJ's Bound by D.R. Horton Precedent
Despite employer victories in court, arbitration agreements with class action waivers are still being invalidated by the NLRB and its Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Just this week, an NLRB ALJ found that the employer violated the NLRA with its mandatory class waiver arbitration agreement of employment claims. Despite the employer's attempt to distinguish its agreement from the one at issue in D.R. Horton and to point out how courts have rejected the D.R. Horton rationale, the ALJ stated that he was bound by the D.R. Horton decision and required to apply it unless it is overturned by the Supreme Court or reversed by the NLRB itself.
Fifth Circuit to Decide D.R. Horton Appeal
The D.R. Horton decision is currently on appeal in the Fifth Circuit. Union and non-union employers alike will be watching to see whether the Fifth Circuit will follow the other circuits that have rejected the NLRB's rationale, and overturn the D.R. Horton ruling. If, on the other hand, the Fifth Circuit affirms the D.R. Horton decision, the split between the Circuit Courts could result in the Supreme Court taking up the issue. We will continue to monitor these cases and keep you informed.